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TCM Classic Movie Fan Club - LOS ANGELES Message Board › An Excerpt from a History that JONO wrote about the Orpheum Theatre back in

An Excerpt from a History that JONO wrote about the Orpheum Theatre back in 1990 that you may find Interesting!!!

Group Organizer
Los Angeles, CA
The Orpheum opened on February 15, 1926. It was the fourth and final theatre in Los Angeles to bear that name, and the most elaborate vaudeville house ever built in Southern California. The Orpheum was designed by G. Albert Lansburgh of San Francisco, the same architect who designed its predecessor the 1911 Orpheum–vacated after 15 years of successful operation to relocate at its current address–842 S. Broadway.

Built for a then staggering $2 million dollars, no expense was spared in its construction. Prominent in the French Renaissance motif were extensive use of gold and copper leaf trim, Scalamandre silk draperies and wall coverings, two 12-feet tall crystal and bronze chandeliers, Italian marble and hand woven carpets.

The Orpheum was designed with legendary acoustics along with excellent sightlines due to its single balcony configuration. The stage was built to accommodate the largest vaudeville acts, with the most modern lighting and stage riggings of its era. Seven floors of dressing rooms were provided to accommodate the stage acts plus orchestra which performed two shows a day. Also included was the theatre’s own 13-rank Wurlitzer pipe organ (which is still in use today and remains the last original theatre pipe organ installation on the west coast). Facilities were even included to house animal acts which over the years included elephants, tigers, lions.

Unfortunately, by the theatre’s opening in February 1926, forces were already in motion which would soon spell the end to traditional vaudeville, which consisted of ten variety acts in two performances per day. Audiences were beginning to demonstrate a growing interest in filmed entertainment and vaudeville-only houses were experiencing financial difficulties. The large circuits began merging and when this failed to improve their fortunes most were acquired by movie studios or movie theatre chains. By 1929 the Orpheum circuit had merged with the Keith circuit and the combined company was acquired by Joseph Kennedy’s Radio Pictures to form Radio-Keith-Orpheum (later simply referred to as RKO).

RKO switched the Orpheum in Los Angeles to primarily first run film programming, but fierce competition from other nearby theatres and the effects of the Depression proved to be too much. By the end of 1932 the Orpheum was dark. Enter Sherrill Corwin, a showman whose father had been operating movie theatres on Broadway in Los Angeles for several years.


In 1933 Sherrill Corwin had a vision that vaudeville could live again at the Orpheum if combined with motion pictures, and he soon made that dream a reality. By adding film entertainment, he was able to reduce the total number of live acts. Quality, however, was never sacrificed. Instead Corwin spent countless hours discovering and showcasing up-and-coming talent. This promising talent included performers such as little Francis Gumm (later to become known as Judy Garland), a very young Sammy Davis, Jr. (then part of the Will Mastin Trio), Ann Miller and Donald O’Connor. For the next 20 years the Orpheum kept vaudeville alive in L.A., and the name Orpheum came to symbolize showmanship at its best.


In the 1940's music became the rage with special performances by Duke Ellington, Paul Whiteman, the Andrew Sisters, Lena Horne and others. Corwin at that time also operated downtown’s Million Dollar Theatre on Broadway and the Lincoln Theatre on Central Avenue (often compared with the Apollo Theatre in New York)--each showcasing popular African-American jazz and blues entertainers from which the most successful would eventually make their way to the Orpheum stage. In addition, he ran as movie houses the nearby Los Angeles and Palace theatres. Collectively, these theatres became the beginnings of Corwin’s Metropolitan Theatres chain. By the late 40's, however, the Orpheum was one of the last movie theatres in the country to offer live entertainment with films.

Due to financial constraints, vaudeville acts finally concluded in the early 50's. Looking toward the future, Corwin installed the west coast’s first large screen projection television system in the Orpheum for a then astronomical $25,000. While others viewed TV as a threat, Corwin believed he could use this growing medium to his advantage. Los Angeles audiences witnessed closed-circuit telecasts of the first atomic bomb blasts and many important sporting events. In the late 1950's Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball demonstrated comedy skits at the Orpheum in front of live audiences in an effort to persuade the CBS television network to feature them in a proposed new comedy series “I Love Lucy.”

Ten years later, five theatrical productions filled the Orpheum stage including the Los Angeles Philharmonic musical “No Strings” starring Howard Keel and Barbara McNair as well as “Romeo and Juliet” directed by Franco Zeffirelli (who later translated this story into film). Also in the 60's, the theatre would rock on Saturday mornings with the popular “Johnny Otis Show” featuring live rhythm and blues acts. A young Stevie Wonder and Little Richard were regulars at these shows as well as Aretha Franklin.
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